Updated Oct 19, 2022 - Economy

Remote work may have fueled a baby boom among U.S. women

Illustration of a stork sitting at a desk with a laptop and cup of coffee

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Remote work likely contributed to a mini-baby boom in 2021 among women in the U.S. — a reversal of a years-long decline in the birth rate, according to a working paper published by three economists this week.

Why it matters: It's surprising. Economists predicted a crash in birth rates at the outset of the pandemic. The quick economic recovery and the rise of remote work may have changed the trajectory, the authors say.

  • The findings suggest that workplace flexibility might be one solution to the long-term issue of falling birth rates — a possible driver of declining economic growth — seen across richer countries.
  • "It's the first recession where we actually see birth rates go up," said Hannes Schwandt, a professor at Northwestern University, who coauthored the paper with Martha Bailey of UCLA and Janet Currie of Princeton.

By the numbers: The CDC released preliminary data on 2021 birth rates earlier this year and found a small increase, but the researchers of the new paper dug deeper.

  • They were able to further parse new restricted-use microdata from the CDC and look at births to U.S.-born mothers compared with births to foreign-born mothers.
  • They found that the birth rate for U.S. mothers increased by 6.2% relative to the 2015-2019 trend line — and that the pandemic led to a net increase in births for U.S.-born mothers of around 46,000 children.

They also discovered that a widely publicized drop in fertility rates in 2020 — agonized over in the press — was largely due to a sharp decline in births to foreign-born women, who were blocked from entering the country.

  • In 2020-2021, there were 91,000 fewer births to foreign born women.
  • This appears to be the first time anyone's put a hard number on births among foreign-born mothers. It's "a significant contribution," to fertility rate studies, said Phillip B. Levine, an economist at Wellesley who studies birth rates.

What's happening: The increase in birth rates was more pronounced for first-time mothers and college-educated women. Women with less education saw continuing declines.

  • Those with more education saw their financial prospects soar in 2021 and the back half of 2020, thanks to the rising value of the stock and housing markets — making it a good time to have a baby, economically at least.
  • Much of that cohort was able to work from home, which gave parents more time and flexibility to deal with the life changes and demands that pregnancy and a new baby bring.

For example: The switch to working remotely in 2020 pushed forward the decision to start a family for Anne Lopez, a 32-year-old tech worker in San Jose.

  • Lopez credits the fact she and her husband could spend less time commuting and more time parenting. It was "the key accelerator," she said.

Yes, but: More work needs to be done to definitively isolate the baby boom's causes, Schwandt said. Another reason for the uptick could be that women had a harder time accessing abortion care during the pandemic.

The intrigue: Recessions usually trigger a drop in birth rates; people don't want babies when times are hard. Not this time. Economists credit the massive influx of government spending.

What to watch: The researchers also looked at birth data from California in 2022 and found that the uptick there has continued, suggesting the pandemic changed the trajectory of fertility in the U.S. longer-term.

  • "The pandemic baby dividend might keep paying," said Schwandt.
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